Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Burka or bikini?

People seem to burst a blood vessel when someone suggests it might be possible to study morality *scientifically*; I've no idea why, other than one's natural distrust for authority or, perhaps, authoritarianism. But of course morality is, and has been, studied scientifically by many; societies down the ages have listened to a mixture of experts, charlatans (including the religious who claim bogus authority) and the zeitgeist, and then enacted a 'universal' morality through their varying legislatures. This is all seen as perfectly normal, but if Sam Harris suggests an entirely *informed* approach, accusations of moral hegemony are made. A bit of moderation is needed, I feel. Here's his talk at TED 2010:

Surely the is-ought problem is overstated? Isn't the point that you can't get to an ought *simply* from a fact about the world; one has to add a 'want'. But 'wants' are facts about the world too, so to say that studying how things are is not going to inform our morality seems astounding to me. How else are we going to decide what's right?

Now, I'm a little uncomfortable, as is no doubt everyone, at the idea of ethical experts set up as some kind of moral arbitration court, determining a universal morality. However, that's not how *science* works. If instead a moral *science* could be established, with ethicists publishing papers and data in support, a moral *consensus* could be worked towards. Of course this is roughly what happens now, only there is nothing formal in the process and entirely unevidenced approaches to morality are considered, which allows arbitrary *prejudices* to become enshrined in our morality.

I don't think it's too much to ask to try to prevent that.


Sam is inviting criticisms of his talk here. Most take issue with the meta-ethical issues raised, I think, questioning the quest for happiness he assumes, and so on; that there are, at bottom, moral axioms that are inscrutable to science. This seems to be accepted by many, although I'm not sure (as ever) we can ever know that. As with all other areas of enquiry, I think it's best to carry on *as if* we will be able to uncover some argument supported by data that allows us to scientifically decide such issues. In any case, it's sufficient, and scientific, in the interim to take putative axioms and examine situations based on those. More than that, it's what we do *now*! And matters that may have been considered axiomatic in the past have been examined scientifically and been questioned, and then pronounced non-axiomatic, so I don't see that these things are immune from study, even if one considers there will always be an axiom at bottom.

Of course, I'm no ethicist, as no doubt an expert could tell!


Not had a chance to read it yet!

Harris seems to adopt an ontological Epicurean approach, making pleasure seeking axiomatic, as opposed to the functional, purpose-driven Aristotelian approach. I think it's an interesting observation that, IMO, the Epicurean view appears more in line with what we've discovered about reality than the other, and this shows how science *can* inform morality, and continue to inform it.

Sam says, more eloquently of course, what I try to say above:
One of my critics put the concern this way: “Why should human wellbeing matter to us?” Well, why should logical coherence matter to us? Why should historical veracity matter to us? Why should experimental evidence matter to us? These are profound and profoundly stupid questions. No framework of knowledge can withstand such skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying. Without being able to stand entirely outside of a framework, one is always open to the charge that the framework rests on nothing, that its axioms are wrong, or that there are foundational questions it cannot answer. So what?
"No framework of knowledge can withstand such skepticism..."; I'm *inclined* to agree, and it's where I've always struggled with the is-ought distinction. Combined with the fact that, apparently, even though we cannot determine scientifically what we *should* do, that does seem to be what we always *have* done. Sure, people have posited odd moralities that have taken hold, but no adult accepts *any* normative advice without some thought, and no society does it without debate.

So, as I said above, let's do it better. I think that's what Sam's calling for. I've been persuaded by Dennett and others that the mystery of 'consciousness' is that we think it's mysterious; it's possible there is something similar going on with morality; the mystery of it is we *think* it's mysterious, not that it *is* mysterious. However, I will need to read more moral philosophy to even begin to justify such a statement.


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